Historic Period

The dates of the historic period vary according to when a group first encountered non-Natives. These are relatively meaningless in any case because most groups had received European goods in trade well before the arrival of Euroamericans. Certainly among the greatest changes affecting Arctic art during and immediately preceding the historic period was the availability of iron tools such as knives, saws, awls, and burins. Not only do the marks on objects made with steel tools differ, but more importantly they enabled artists to create objects that were more intricate in conception or had more elaborately rendered surface detail.

One example of the new possibilities that steel tools brought to Arctic artists is the shift from pictographic to realistic engraving styles on walrus tusks from the Bering Strait Inupiaq region at the turn of the 20th century. Before about 1890, artists in this area made drill bows, snow beaters, and other such objects out of bone or ivory and decorated them in a delightful pictograph-ic, almost cartoonlike style. In 1892, however, Happy Jack (his Inupiaq name was either Amaguaq or Angokwazhuk), an Eskimo living on Little Diomede Island, sailed aboard a whaling ship to San Francisco. En route he encountered the scrimshaw work of the Yankee whalers. When he returned to Nome, Happy Jack began copying naturalistic imagery from magazines, advertisements, post cards, and the like onto full walrus tusks. He marketed the tusks to the gold rushers around Nome and taught others his technique. Happy Jack's work, which inspired a generation of ivory carvers both in Alaska and Chukotka, is an excellent example of the creativity that comes of the fusion of two cultures, a theme that runs through Arctic art of the historic and contemporary periods (Ray, 1984; Mitlyanskaya, 1976). Even today, collectors of indigenous art persist in their disdain for art that they perceive as "contaminated" by Euroamerican influence, a perspective that perhaps arises from the unconsciously patronizing wish to exoticize the creativity of indigenous peoples. This is unfortunate because as often as not the cross-fertilization has resulted in explosions of creativity. The work of Happy Jack is but one example (Mitlyanskaya, 1976; Ray, 1984).

One feature unifying Arctic art of the historic period is its close links to religion and ceremony. This persisted unevenly, depending upon the determination and policies of the Christian missionaries and government officials in a given area. Well into the 20th century in some areas, religious ritual served as an important source of art objects. Masks, drums, and regalia, to name just a few, all belonged to the rich ceremonial life that characterized Arctic cultures from Scandinavia to Siberia. Most Arctic groups had a religious specialist, or shaman, who derived his/her powers from communication with helping spirits. When illness or bad fortune struck, the shaman donned special regalia and embarked on a journey to determine the cause. Usually such ceremonies were public and consisted of performances lasting several nights. Among the Yup'ik Eskimos of southwestern Alaska, for example, the annual Bladder festival or ceremony culminated in a rite out on the ice in which a year's accumulation of sea-mammal bladders were the focus of a shamanistic séance, after which the bladders were removed from the ceremonial house and returned to the spirit world through a hole in the ice. The haunting, complex masks used during the Bladder ceremony and other annual mid-winter ceremonies are among the most powerful art objects known for the Arctic (Fienup-Riordan, 1998: 38-40).

The Inuit of Greenland, who were in intensive contact with Europeans from the mid-18th century onward, developed an artistic tradition more closely modeled along European lines. In the late 18 th century, Danish missionaries and colonial administrators encouraged the development of an orthography of the Greenlandic language. As a result, the Greenlanders became literate well before other Inuit groups. In the mid-19th century, the Danish administrator and amateur ethnologist Hinrich Johannes Rink founded Atuagagdliutit, the first indigenous-language newspaper in the Arctic. In addition to articles, the paper published prints and drawings. Aron of Kangeq (1822-1869), one of the artists, became known throughout Greenland and Denmark for his lively watercolors of village life and Inuit tales in West Greenland. Similar to Happy Jack in Alaska, Aron was among the first Inuit artists to achieve name recognition beyond his Native settlement. Also like Happy Jack and many other artists of the historic period, Aron suffered from a disability (tuberculosis), and art provided him with an alternative source of livelihood when he was unable to support himself as a subsistence hunter (Kaalund, 1983).

Canadian Inuit art of the historic period was simple and small-scale. Around Baffin Island, men made scrimshandered walrus tusks—the result of contact with Scottish whalers—and women created magnificently sewn and beaded parkas, mittens, and boots. When the soapstone lamps characteristic of this area broke, men often carved small animals for the amusement of children out of the pieces, an activity that foreshadows Inuit soapstone carving of the contemporary period.

Throughout the historic and into the contemporary period, the northern North American Indians bordering the Inuit and Eskimos have been known for their magnificent beadwork on moose and caribou skin. They produced moccasins, pouches, and pin cushions, a significant proportion of which were made for the non-Native souvenir market from the late 18th century onward. A creative synthesis of earlier porcupine quillwork with European-style embroidery, floral beadwork was introduced among the Eastern Woodland groups by Ursuline nuns. By the end of the 19th century, the floral-beadwork tradition had spread northwestward as far as the Arctic and Subarctic Athapaskans of Alaska (Duncan, 1989). In the east, the Naskapi-Montagnais Indians created tailored, European-style frock coats from caribou hide, which they painted with intricately patterned geometric designs that are unique among Native American art styles (Burnham, 1995).

The Saami, like the Inuit/Eskimo groups, employed the tambourine drum in religious rites, but Saami drums, unlike those of the other Arctic groups, were decorated with pictographs of prey animals, humans, and cosmological events. Carved and elaborately decorated bone knives as well as intricate silverwork also characterized Saami art in the historic period. Women sewed the characteristic curled-front boots from reindeer skin. They also made handsome, well-executed basketry and did masterful sewing of the characteristic blue, red, and yellow cloth costumes and the distinctive four-pointed men's hat (Kihlberg, 1999).

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